Everybody in the BT Sports studio let out a dry chuckle when Harry Redknapp joked about Liverpool and Tottenham scrapping it out to avoid the Europa League following the former’s 4-1 defeat to Arsenal earlier this month, but that may well be the deepest, darkest, most paradoxical wish of his twice-removed successor, Mauricio Pochettino.
Not to suggest Spurs’ tepid form since a 3-0 defeat to Manchester United in March has been in any way unnaturally orchestrated; there’s no Europa-League-gate conspiracy requiring unearthing.
But as Redknapp proclaimed in 2011, the Europa League is a ‘killer’ for Premier League clubs; it saps squad fitness, causes unnecessary injuries, obliges league fixtures to be rescheduled on Sundays and adds an extra 19 games to the campaign if you’re unfortunate enough to reach the tournament’s final.
Spurs are hardly in a position to be turning down silverware, especially trophies of such continental repute, and winning the tournament next season would give Pochettino an unorthodox route to his ultimate task as White Hart Lane manager – qualification into the Champions League.
However, the track record of the Europa League’s pejorative impact on English clubs speaks for itself. On average, teams finish 2.3 places lower in the Premier League the year after qualifying for Europe’s second tier tournament, the biggest slide being Newcastle’s eleven-place plummet in 2012/13. On only eight occasions since 2004, out of a possible 31, have English sides finished in a higher position than the year previous during campaigns of Europa League participation. And, albeit by the miniscule difference of just 0.02, Premier League sides claim less points than the 1.43 average in games immediately following Europa League fixtures.
So no matter how well-dressed ITV4 attempt to make it, as if the channel’s sheer name and lowly listing in the Radio Times isn’t conclusive enough, the Europa League is statistically proven to more likely hinder than help Premier League clubs – which makes you wonder how Pochettino’s first season at White Hart Lane would have gone if it hadn’t coincided with his first season in the Europa League.
Not that the Europa League has been a complete waste of time for the Argentine. He’s used it to examine the extremities of Tottenham’s holistic squad, giving fringe players and youngsters the opportunities to impress, and without his superfluous run of form during the tournament’s early stages, scoring five in his first four appearances, it’s unlikely Harry Kane would’ve found the confidence to unleash his godly netting prowess onto the Premier League in such emphatic fashion.
But following a campaign in which Tottenham have neither progressed nor regressed under their new manager, instead slowly transforming into a different kind of 6th-place animal, it’s a headache Pochettino simply doesn’t need.
So let’s look at the situation in reverse – how many clubs have benefitted from not playing in the Europa League. Although there’s no coherent pattern as such from the last decade, since 2008 (and assuming current league standings remain as they are at the end of May) seven out of a possible nine clubs to have finished in the top eight but not qualified for the Europa League have gone on to improve their league standing in the following season – the biggest difference being Liverpool’s jump from seventh to second between 2012 and 2014. The Anfield outfit are the only real anomaly – they didn’t qualify in 2010/11, but dropped two places to eighth the term after. Meanwhile, Everton maintained seventh place without qualifying two years in a row.
To suggest not qualifying will have the same effect on Tottenham next season would be pure speculation – albeit, speculation based on some pretty solid quantitative evidence. But for a club that have regularly toyed with the top four during the last six years – and this season spent 15 weeks in the top six – non-involvement in the Europa League might finally provide the respite they need to fully focus on a successful Champions League bid. Admittedly, that would still likely require one of England’s regular representatives in Europe’s most coveted tournament to endure a disastrous campaign.
Unfortunately, however, barring a minor miracle, Spurs’ fate for next season is already sealed. With Chelsea winning the Capital One Cup and Arsenal widely expected to thump Aston Villa at Wembley in the FA Cup, it would take a plummet to eighth place to avoid next term’s Europa League. Currently, eighth-place Swansea are eight points behind.
But a man can dream and if its not already, only one thought should be crossing Pochettino’s mind at night; how to throw away Tottenham’s last four games without being done for match-fixing.